Ballet Oberlin Show Reimagines Classic Family Film


Photo by Justin Bank, Staff Photographer

How to Train Your Dragon: The Ballet, featuring music from the beloved family film of the same name and original choreography by College senior Shai Wolf, College first-year Amanda Shen, and College junior Emily Highkin, premiered in Wilder Main Space last Friday.

In the history of Western ballet, some characters stick out as emblematic of the genre — Giselle, Odette and Odile, the nutcracker, to name a few. Then again, some roles — like Hiccup, Toothless, Ruffnut, Tuffnut, and Green Death — have likely never been performed in a ballet until this weekend, when Ballet Oberlin’s production of How to Train Your Dragon: The Ballet opened in Wilder Main Space. The show ran on Friday and Saturday, debuting an original choreography in an adaptation of the movie franchise, which was based on the modern classic children’s book series.

The director of Ballet Oberlin, College senior Shai Wolf, was inspired to create the show after they tore their ACL in April. After watching How to Train Your Dragon, which was released by DreamWorks in 2010 and has since entered the canon of delightful and heartwarming animated films, Wolf had the idea to make it into a ballet.

“I watched the movie a lot of times,” Wolf said. “Primarily, it was the music that inspired the ballet.”

The music, by International Film Music Critics Association award-winning composer John Powell, is inspiring. The entire ballet was choreographed to the movie’s score — tugging heartstrings for all audience members and performers familiar with it.

If you don’t know the story of How to Train Your Dragon, it follows Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (College sophomore Madeleine Gefke), a small Viking boy who never really fit in in the Viking village of Berk, where his father is the chief. When Hiccup creates a weapon that brings down a Night Fury, the most fearsome dragon, no one believes that he has done it. However, when he goes to find the creature to kill it, he ends up befriending it instead. Hiccup tames and trains the dragon, which he names Toothless (College first year Amanda Shen,) and is even able to fly on its back. Hiccup soon he realizes that an evil dragon called the Green Death is the reason that dragons pillage the Viking village and unites the other Vikings to bring it down and allow dragons and Vikings to live in harmony. It’s an inspiring story about peace, compassion, and friendship. Of course, Hiccup also has a love interest — a powerful young Viking named Astrid (College first-year Maeve Dick).

Choreographically, the ballet managed to preserve and translate both the humor and touching emotion of the film. For example, the characteristic moment where Toothless’ eyes open as Hiccup stands over him, ready to kill, was instead represented by the two of them catching eye contact mid-dance with startling tension.

The dancers, who of course never spoke, attacked all of their movements with theatricality and expression. There were vikings with furry stoles and weapons, and dragons flapping in glittery leotards — needless to say, it was a lively ensemble.

One of the notable points of Ballet Oberlin’s work is the complete range of skills from each of the dancers. There are people like Wolf, who have been practicing ballet most of their lives — and there are people who have never taken a single class. According to Wolf, Ballet Oberlin is mostly a resource for the dancing needs of anyone and everyone who has an interest in the art. They offer a couple technique classes a week and also try to put on at least one show a semester.

This year’s production was quite an undertaking — Wolf began conceptualizing and choreographing back in spring. All of the pieces aside from Toothless’ solo, choreographed by College first-year Amanda Shen, and the classmates’ scene, choreographed by College junior Emily Highkin, were choreographed by Wolf. Auditions for the show were held in September.

“The entire cast ended up learning all of the choreography before Thanksgiving, which was surprising and exciting and allowed us to focus on details during tech week after break,” Gefke wrote in an email to the Review. “The entire process, from rehearsals to showtime, was such a positive experience with so much love and support flowing between everyone.”

Gefke said she often received emails from Wolf saying things like, “Get excited for this I was feeling ambitious.” While she had been hesitant to audition for the role of Hiccup due to the time commitment, she was incredibly excited to be a part of the production and in the lead role. She, Shen, and Dick were all instrumental in helping to work out the kinks of creating the new ballet.

“I feel like it’s really the only dance form that’s always intentional,” Wolf said, describing their love of ballet.

Due to the form’s underrepresentation in the dance department, Wolf enjoys providing a space where it can be explored and innovated.

This weekend’s show did just that. As Wolf said in their artistic note in the program: “Celebrate the human. The daring, the heroic, as well as the awkward and the clumsy. Be a little bit silly. Be a little bit brilliant. Notice the mossy rocks amidst the vast, golden horizons. And remember, ‘the only real comforts against the cold are those you keep close to your heart.’”